Two subspecies of lions were just added to the government's list of endangered species.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Dec. 21 that two subspecies of lion will be granted new federal protections as endangered species. One, found in central-to-western Africa and India, will be listed as endangered. The other, found in eastern-to-southern Africa, will be listed as threatened.
But it's actually good news.
This is a way for the U.S. government to put new restrictions around trophy hunting.
The government can't regulate what other countries do with their animals. So if countries like Zimbabwe want to let hunts continue, the U.S. can't stop them.
But the government can make it less appealing for Americans to participate in the kind of trophy hunts, such as the one that let a now-infamous dentist shoot and kill Cecil the lion earlier this year. His death caused an international uproar, which you may remember.
Now hunters will find it a lot harder to get any trophies they do kill back into the U.S. Many will be outright prohibited. Hunting permits will also be stricter and more expensive.
"The lion is one of the planet's most beloved species and an irreplaceable part of our shared global heritage," said Dan Ashe, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "If we want to ensure that healthy lion populations continue to roam the African savannas and forests of India, it's up to all of us — not just the people of Africa and India — to take action."
As their new listing suggests, lions are having a tough time lately.
In the last 10,000 years, lions have disappeared from the majority of their historical range.
And it's not been any better in the last few decades. Habitat loss, hunting, and other threats have wiped out about 40% of lions over the last 21 years. It's estimated that less than 40,000 adult lions remain.
One of the places they usually receive some modicum of protection is in national parks.
That's why Cecil's case was so devastating. Cecil had been living in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, where he was a bit of a celebrity and part of a group of lions that University of Oxford had been studying for years. But instead of being safe, Cecil was lured out of the park and killed.
This action gives lions the same federal protections that has helped save animals like the bald eagle from extinction.
During the 1960s, it was estimated that only about 400 nesting pairs of bald eagles were left in the lower 48 states. But the government took action, using regulations and other measures to protect the birds. The population bounced back, and now there are nearly 10,000 pairs in the contiguous U.S.
So hopefully, adding these kind of protections to lions might put them back on the road to recovery as well. Many lion cousins — tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, and cougars — are already waiting for them in the circle of protection.
Conservation groups petitioned the government to protect lions a few years ago, but the government says their decision was mostly based on new scientific data about lion populations and genetics.
This action will hopefully take a bit of the edge off the hunting pressure and help to keep lions around for a long time. Which makes me feel all: